GARDENING: The grass roots of New Gardening

Praised for his inovation, Dutch gardener Piet Oudolf is the talk of the contemporary pros. Mary Keen wasn't convinced - until she payed him a visit

THE WINDS of change are blowing over the nation's favourite pastime. Young designers have had it with Sissinghurst, Hidcote or Rosemary Verey's Barnsley. They like abstract lines better than formal ones, prefer grasses to flowers, and tend to base what they do on large-scale natural effects, rather than on highly cultivated traditional layouts. The modern tendency to island beds the size of small continents fills me with gloom, especially when they contain a very few low care plants, and whispering grasses. I had to go to Holland to discover that New Gardening can be an inspiration, and that grasses may not be as impossible to manage as I thought they were.

Piet Oudolf, a Dutch nurseryman and designer, has been the talk of the pros for the last year or so. New naturalistic gardeners praise his use of grasses, the scale of his planting and the range of perennials that he has personally selected. It sounded as though a trip to Piet's own garden was a must, because it would highlight the influences filtering through to modern English gardens.

The weather helped. On a golden autumn afternoon, three of us set off on bicycles from the village of Hummelo near Arnhem. Five kilometres of pedalling on flat traffic-free tracks with the sun on your back would put anyone in a good mood for garden visiting. When we arrived we found billows of high farm hedges surrounding a rectangle of garden in front of a gabled brick house with white shutters. The first impression was of many solid shapes of yew, stock still, between fountains of grasses that never stopped erupting. Because it was late in the year, colours were subdued: there was a lot of brown from seed heads but dots of red kept the garden from looking too dead. I suspect that at first we were all looking for different things and that each of us in turn found what we wanted - enough atmosphere and sense of place to satisfy me. A variety of plants (some of which none of us had seen before) to occupy Beth who trained at Kew, and for Kirsty, the artist, some extraordinary shapes and textures. Later, as we toured the garden with Oudolf we began to appreciate his highly organised and far from naturalistic approach.

He believes in using a restricted palette of plants: each border is conceived as a whole. Apart from yew and box, which are used as clipped accents, shrubs are rare. Perennials are his paints. These he often repeats, but never to the point of boredom. Certain forms recur: spikes, balls, cones and flat tiers of flowers are set against the plumes of different grasses. Bold groups are used to punctuate a bed, Eupatoriums in one place, hostas in another, but I suspect that his plant knowledge would prevent any of his schemes from becoming too formulaic. A plant has to have "good structure", "good texture" and be "good in death", to earn a place in an Oudolf border. Good structure means strong form and no need to stake. Beefy perennials stalk the garden. Picture a palette of man-sized, flat-topped umbellifers, large daisies, fountains of grasses and firebrands of polygonums and you get some idea of the drama of an Oudolf planting. Think of flowers that you thought you were bored by, like Echinacea (the cone flower with pink daisies) and imagine it in greenish white. Thalictrum 'Hewitt's Double', a filigreed rue with tiny purple flowers is a connoisseur's favourite, Thalictrum rochebrunnianum is even taller and more desirable and hardly known over here. The thrill of seeing new forms of familiar plants was repeated everywhere in the garden. There are Achilleas more than a metre high, in terracotta reds, rather than the pastel shaded numbers that we know, a monkshood, 10ft tall (Aconitum episcopali), recently introduced from China, late daisies in orange brown (Helenium 'Flammendes Katchen'), a sunflower with willow leaves (Helianthus salicifolius), enormous bergamots 'Monardas Cherokee' and 'Comanche', Selinum wallichianum like a foaming cow parsley, angelicas, especially a giant form, gigas, with stems and flowers tinged red. This is Alice in Wonderland territory where the people have shrunk and the plants seem to have doubled in size.

With half hardies Piet Oudolf never bothers. Plants have to survive colder winters than ours. Seed heads and grasses, heavy with cobwebs or dewdrops, or alive with small birds, can furnish a garden as well as flowers. All through the winter, plant-ghosts shimmer in the garden. Light plays, wind rustles over the grasses and if in some leaden-skied days it all seems too brown and wet, when the sun comes out all the dead lilies are gilded again. Movement is a great feature, so too is a sense that everything changes. Even in late autumn there is promise in the air. It is a garden of dynamic effect which could not have been made without the exceptional knowledge and vision of its creator. When he designs for those who know nothing about gardens Oudolf gives them something simpler.

The triumph of his complex plot is the sense of grandeur and space achieved in less than an acre. This is helped by the solid blocks of evergreen that provide a background for the pyrotechnics of the plants. In a nursery plot behind the house he and his wife, Anja, sell the varieties that amazed and surprised us in the garden.

I fear Piet Oudolf's garden must be seen to be believed. Before I went, several people had tried to describe it, but even the most eloquent failed to convey the combination of exuberance and restraint. If the pilgrimage to Hummelo is hard to arrange, the consolation is that the first Oudolf garden here should be no mean substitute. John Coke of Green Farm Plants, and one of our best specialist nurserymen, has commissioned his friend to design a garden for him at Bury Court near Farnham, where the nursery is based. After one season it already looks promising. It is top of my list for a visit and the chance to buy more Oudolf plants than you can carry on a bicycle.

! Piet Oudolf, Broekstraat 17, 6999 DE Hummelo, The Netherlands; open from April to November, Tues-Sat, 10am-4pm (00 31 31438 1120). Green Farm Plants, Bury Court, Bentley, Farnham, Surrey GU10 5LZ; open from mid-March to autumn; Wed-Sat, 10am-6pm (01420 23202)

Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'